By: Sharon Nelson
The clang of the doors closing behind us made me shudder. I suddenly felt the gravity of the loss of one’s freedom. A prison guard, stern and unflinching, ushered us through massive steel doors to security where we relinquished our driver’s licenses through a steel cage barrier. Then we were scanned for weapons. More steel doors led to a large room, empty except for a circle of chairs in its center. The room was nondescript: barren walls met a cracked cement floor on which sat steel grey chairs. Overhead, fluorescent lights hummed and cast a harsh glare over the space. Each of us took a seat, filling half the circle. Within minutes, men in blue uniforms were led into the room and they filled the other half. The group facilitator introduced us to one another and then invited us to share.
As moments passed, I began to feel awkward tension turn to anxiety. I tentatively lifted my gaze from the floor and glanced around. Everyone was looking down, some nervously shaking their legs. When the silence was almost too much to bear, I opened my mouth to speak not knowing exactly what I was going to say.
I began, “When I first got into recovery, I saw myself as a victim. I could only see the harm others caused me—not the harm I caused others. I felt like all of my actions were justified because I was only reacting to what other people did to me. I didn’t even realize that I needed to take responsibility for all of my feelings and behaviors regardless of what happened before them. For me, recovery is about responsibility.”
When I finished speaking, there was brief silence and then an inmate spoke up. He said, “Hi, I’m Tom. You know, when I first came to this prison I saw myself as a victim too. I thought it was everybody else’s fault that I was here. Most of all my parents. Because they abused me. And I blamed my employers for being unreasonable. And I just hated the cops.”
The atmosphere in the room began to change. Inmates and visitors alike relaxed back in their chairs. One by one, the men spoke, offering up the same sentiment. All of them had once felt like victims regardless of the nature of their crimes. They’d looked everywhere except within to find the source of their problems. It was only when they were challenged to do so that they began to take personal responsibility and transform their own perspectives.
As I listened to the men speak, I heard my own story in theirs. I heard my own struggle with honesty and to face the truth about myself. I heard deep and profound regret and a desire to make amends. And I heard hope. It dawned on me that if I’d not sought treatment when I did I could be sitting in a blue uniform somewhere myself. When the hour was up, I was no longer sitting in a group with prison inmates but with people striving just like me. People striving to be free.